One of San Francisco’s most unique neighborhoods is the Mission District, which describes the area surrounding the Spanish Mission of San Francisco in the late 1800s. Prior to Spanish colonization, the area was inhabited by Native American people who the Spanish missionaries were meant to “civilize.” Since then, it has been an immigrant and minority neighborhood, first welcoming German and Irish people before and after the 1906 earthquake, and later becoming home to migrants from Mexico and Central America.
From the mid-80s onward, the neighborhood again became an enclave to a new and growing minority: the gay and lesbian community. Today, this inclusive cultural trajectory has shifted due to soaring rents ushered in by the Bay Area’s tech boom, and many of the migrant and low-income renters have been pushed out. Nonetheless, residents in the south Mission surrounding 24th Street are still fighting to sustain some of the special haunts and cultural fixtures that have defined this storied neighborhoods for generations. Despite a changing landscape, the Mission remains a beacon for creatives and minorities looking for colorful street murals, indigenous artwork, bilingual bookstores, fresh produce, and great pupusas (corn tortillas).
Street art everywhere
From the moment you step out of the 24th Street BART station, colorful artwork surrounds you. Stroll through Balmy Alley, a brick alleyway made up of protest murals depicting human rights abuses in Central America, racial tensions in the United States and, more recently, the gentrification problems of the Mission itself. Local artists are painting new pieces all the time, so this live gallery is always changing. Want to know more? Stop into Precita Eyes Muralists, a storefront selling postcards and paintings by Mission muralists and hosting guided walking tours to see the artwork around the area.
It's not SF without a Mexicatessen
Home to the Mission burrito, there is no trip to the Mission without a whole lot of beans, rice, corn, and guacamole. These staples of Latin American cooking go into most dishes of the cultural soul food you’ll find in the Mission. Open wide for a gigantic bite of one the best Mission-style burritos, a tortilla filled with grilled veggies, rice, beans, guacamole, and Mexican cream wrapped so tightly you’d think you were holding a brick. El Metate (2406 Bryant St.) is consistently rated one of the Mission’s best burritos vendors, despite the stiff competition.
Try the Puebla-style tortas (that’s a Mexican sandwich, served on a large roll) at La Torta Gorda (2833 24th St.), which fuses a diner atmosphere with traditional Mexican eats. For long lines consistent with the fame of their tacos, La Espiga de Oro (2916 24th St.) welcomes you with bright yellow walls and soft-shelled, bite-sized tacos filled with all of the traditional meats.
Looking to eat and run? Grab an unbeatable pupusa at La Palma Mexicatessen (2884 24th St.), a corn flour pancake filled with beans, cheese, meat, or fruit and topped off with spicy coleslaw-style cabbage, served Salvadorian-style. You can also grab unique deli items like crispy pork rinds and jello-molds in the shape of a flower. La Victoria Bakery (2937 24th St.) serves up pan dulce (sweet bread), churros, empanadas, and other signature pastries to finish off with a sweet treat. You can expect a meal at any of these shops for less than 10 USD.
The sun never sets ...
The sunniest spot in fog-shrouded San Francisco? The Mission, of course! But beyond the literal sunshine, the district’s concentration of Victorian homes is another special feature in this historic neighborhood. Look for the arch of a sun, with beams spreading skyward, on the facades of the skinny, pointed rooftops. The sunbeam design was typical of the Victorian area, symbolizing the imperialist rally cry, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” Take a free, neighborhood walking tour with citizen historians on an SF Walking Tour of the Mission’s architecture.
The major hallmark of the Mission neighborhood is its activist population. The immigrants, minorities, and working-class residents who have lived in the area throughout the city’s history have been vocal contributors seeking social justice, even when City Hall and the financial interests north of Market Street tried to silence them. And, even now, as eviction threatens many residents, they answer that challenge with art, community, and activism, making a powerful statement and creating a tight-knit support system. Show your support by visiting any of the local artists who want to engage the community.
Visit art center and community space Praxis, a clothing workshop (and boutique) that also serves as a gathering center to share ideas and find collaborative project partners. Galeria de la Raza, a Latino arts center with monthly bilingual poetry nights and gallery shows is a hub for queer, Latino, and youth visual and performing art. Join Brava! Theater Center in supporting women artists by attending a show at the historic 1920s theater space, which has been dedicated to showcasing the work of women in the arts since 1986.
Discovering the Mission spirit
Despite changes, it’s safe to say that San Francisco’s south Mission is alive and well. The spirit of community, DIY projects, protests, connection, socially relevant art, and delicious food can all be found along the slim 24th Street corridor, which hopefully spreads its staunch refusal to change with the times to the rest of the city. And if not, well, at least you’ll find a refuge here.
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